Trump-Kim talks: Fantastic, indeed

What did you make of the bank of star-spangled banners alongside North Korea’s Ramhongsaek Konghwagukgi (flag) displayed in Singapore’s Capella Hotel today? From a purely visual perspective, the red, white and blue and the stars of the American and North Korean flags could not have been better coordinated — at times, it seemed the two countries’ flags were playing an optical illusion of merging into one. Oh, the irony.

Even Kim Jong Un was keen to deftly point out to President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE that their historic encounter was a scene from a science fiction movie. Collected, as he generally appeared, the young leader most likely had some pinch-me-now moments as he stood face-to-face with the leader of the world’s most powerful nation — finally.

We thought we’d never live to see this moment, first and foremost because it seemed outright inconceivable to have an incumbent U.S. president sit cordially in the same room with the leader of the world’s most oppressive and still-standing authoritarian regime. Not to mention, U.S.-North Korea relations in the lead-up to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea’s charm offensive during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics took a turn for the worst, with bilateral tensions boiling near the brink of war. Amidst the “fire and fury” rhetoric, with both Trump and Kim being a hair’s breadth away from reaching for the nuclear button, a summit was the last thing we could hope for. Never say never.


And so the anticipated Trump-Kim summit took place, with decorum and cordiality but less fanfare than the April inter-Korean summit, apposite to a practical meeting. The president shook Kim’s hand on multiple occasions, frequently patted the young dictator on the back, and even complimented the North Korean leader as being “talented.” Manners, smiles and thumbs-upping aside, what did the summit accomplish?

In the lead-up to the summit, skeptics — realists — tempered expectations of any tangible deliverables from the Trump-Kim meeting. Washington had insisted upon Pyongyang’s "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization" (CVID) before any real progress could begin economically and politically for the Kim regime; many also called for addressing the North’s egregious human rights violations during the talks.

But given the condensed time frame of summit preparations and the 70-year-old behemoth of the North Korea problem — nuclear weapons, Pyongyang’s human rights record, settlement of the Korean War, illicit activities, not to mention the regime’s unpredictability and the regional implications of the summit — to have expected a neatly laid out path forward with North Korea would have been unreasonable.

So we weren’t completely surprised when, at the conclusion of the summit, Washington and Pyongyang announced four broad joint goals moving forward: establishing new U.S.-North Korea relations for peace and prosperity, a lasting peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, complete denuclearization of the peninsula, and the recovery and repatriation of POW/MIA remains in North Korea. Interestingly, the joint statement underscored mutual confidence-building as a way to promote denuclearization of the peninsula.

CVID having been the linchpin in gauging the summit’s success, it’s remarkable that this language does not appear in the joint statement — nor was it referenced by either side during the talks. At the press briefing following the summit, President Trump was asked on several occasions by reporters whether North Korea had agreed to CVID. The president, however, was short on details and a timetable for possible next steps to verify Pyongyang’s denuclearization.

And yet, North Korea’s nuclear weapons had been the most critical point of contention between Washington and Pyongyang — not to mention, the central issue and impetus for the Trump-Kim summit in the first place. That this decisive piece was left out of the joint statement seems amiss.

President Trump, following the summit, told the media that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoState Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary Biden slips further back to failed China policies MORE and national security adviser John Bolton will be meeting with the North Koreans again, as early as next week, to hash out the details of the joint statement. The two sides will meet “many times,” he said. It remains to be seen whether the details on denuclearization will be announced in subsequent meetings.

It might be too early to tell whether the summit was a success — and for whom. But as some South Korean pundits have pointed out, Kim has scored a few points just for showing up. The juxtaposition of the North Korean flag with the American Stars and Stripes, the first-ever meeting with a U.S. president, plus Kim’s ease in portraying himself to the public as being “no different” from other world leaders have boosted his legitimacy and standing as a leader.

Kim not only has rounded off his spiky dictator image; he also may have softened the hearts and loosened the purse strings of the leaders of South Korea, Japan, perhaps even China and Singapore. As a case in point, even before the summit wrapped up, South Koreans in the Kaesong inter-Korean complex were hopeful to revive the joint economic activities with North Korea.

And so, a couple things to chew on as we continue to process and digest the outcome of the Singapore talks. Kim had much to gain by coming to the talks. But what did Pyongyang give back in return? And what did Washington gain?

One final thought for careful consideration, back to President Trump’s compliment of Kim: “He’s a very talented [leader].”

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the country's leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program.